For the Gun Lobby, Ignorance is Bliss

I noticed a recent article in the Washington Times (which is to print what Fox News is to TV) that had me thinking, "Here we go again."

The article, headlined "U.S., after long ban, quietly begins to study gun safety," reported, with barely-concealed alarm, that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is studying the risks to teenagers from carrying guns. Can you imagine that? A government agency believing that teens with guns should be considered an issue of public health?

Pro-gun Members of Congress sent NIH an intimidating letter questioning the gun-related research. A spokesperson for the Gun Owners of America added ominously, "This kind of research does concern us, and we're going to be watching it closely."

Yes, it's "déjà vu all over again," the repetition of a longtime gun lobby theme. I call it the "fear of facts." Or, "the less we know about gun violence, the better off we are." This principle dictates a recurring gun lobby tactic: when new information starts to look threatening to the pro-gun agenda, make sure it never sees the light of day.

We saw this tactic at work in the 1990s, when the Centers for Disease Control began to fund firearm surveillance systems at state health departments to allow the collection of basic data about firearm deaths and injuries - the same kind of information that has long been collected about auto deaths and injuries. Gun lobby intimidation led Congress to cut $2.6 million from CDC's budget - exactly the amount that was being spent on gun-related research.

To this day, the CDC is subject to a legislative restriction barring it from funding research used "in whole or in part to advocate or promote gun control." In other words, if there is a chance research would support the need for stronger gun laws, CDC can't fund it. There is no such restriction on research that could be used to oppose stronger gun laws. Can you imagine if CDC were barred from funding research that could be used "in whole or in part to advocate or promote" the regulation of tobacco products?

In recent years, we have seen the "ignorance is bliss" approach of the gun lobby surface on other issues. It is the basis for the infamous Tiahrt Amendments barring public disclosure of the crime gun trace data that for many years had been routinely disclosed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. When researchers used the data to show that state gun laws impede the flow of guns into the illegal market, that assault weapons are disproportionately traced to crime, and that certain gun dealers are feeding large numbers of guns into the criminal market, the gun lobby felt sufficiently threatened to get Congress to suppress the information.

We see the same effort to hide the truth about state concealed weapon laws. The National Rifle Association has been shockingly successful in bullying state legislatures into passing laws that have exponentially increased the number of people with licenses to carry concealed weapons, even in the face of strong public opposition. It turns out that, in state after state with these laws, lots of very dangerous people have been given licenses to carry hidden handguns in public, and they have committed lots of very serious crimes.

For example, in 2007, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that 1,400 individuals who had pled guilty or no-contest to felony charges had been issued concealed carry licenses and that license holders had committed crimes ranging from aggravated stalking to manslaughter. The Sun-Sentinel obtained the names of the license holders just before the Florida legislature, at the behest of the NRA, passed legislation to block further public disclosure. The same pattern has been repeated in other states: after the press discloses the dangerous individuals granted concealed carry licenses and their crimes, the NRA immediately seeks legislation to seal the names.

It's ironic, isn't it? The gun lobby insists that "the people should be trusted to have guns." But it is unwilling to trust the people with the truth about guns.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.